Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Lead Once More (1929)

Jun 26, 2024 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


         A spurious story recounts how President Lincoln told Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “So you’re the little woman who started this great war.” A century later another little woman ignited another civil war, though the warring flags were neither Union nor Confederate. Instead, the banner bore the colors of the biblical Joseph’s coat.

      One never knows on who the spotlight of fame will land as was the case with Edith (Edie) born in Philadelphia, the youngest of three children of James and Cecelia Schlain, Jewish immigrants from Russia. The family lost their candy/ ice cream store and home above it after Edie and a brother contracted polio, and the authorities quarantined the shop. James sheltered Edie as best he was able during the Depression-he took a hard-boiled egg sandwich for lunch to work at his new job so he could buy her books. Her mother’s advice concerning anti-Semitism was if a boy called her “dirty Jew,” she should pull his hair and run. The family moved to a middle-class neighborhood because Mrs. Schlain wanted her daughters to meet the right boys.

       In 1946, Edie attended Temple University and got engaged to her brother’s best friend, Saul Windsor, who she married after she received her bachelor’s degree. She later recalled, “He was exactly what most girls wanted. He was big, handsome, and strong, yet sweet. I think that if I had been straight he would have been the love of my life.” She had feared that she was not, even before walking down the aisle. Less than a year later she divorced Saul because she wanted something else from love, something that required remarkable chutzpah in 1952. Edie moved to Greenwich Village to “let myself be gay,” and she pursued a master’s degree in mathematics at New York University. She applied for a job at programming the eight-ton UNIVAC computer that required high-security clearance. Before the interview Edie worried the FBI agents would question her in regard to her sexuality. In order to deflect suspicion she showed up for the meeting in high heels and a dress with a crinoline. Windsor found her niche at IBM where she attained the company’s highest technical ranking, an extremely rare feat for a woman of that era. She felt it advisable to keep her love of ladies secret from her employer and colleagues and was in constant fear of being outed.

      Her life’s most magic moment occurred when she went to Portofino in Greenwich Village when she discovered on Friday nights it was full of lesbians, and she was desperate to meet one of them. Two years younger than Edie, Thea Spyer was a stunning psychology student, an accomplished violinist, and had the dubious distinction of Sarah Lawrence College had expelled her for kissing a woman. She had been born in Amsterdam to a wealthy Jewish family of pickle manufacturers whose fortune allowed them to flee Holland just before the Nazis invaded.  Although Spyer had come with another woman, they danced until, as Winsor put it, she got a hole in her stocking. Edie said she “had never wanted anybody inside me till Thea. And then I wanted her inside me all the time.” They saw each other at parties over the next two years, and during those meetings, they would dance together. Thea recalled that Edie was the “first lesbian I ever met who could actually lead!” Thea, for her part, was taken by Edie’s physical allure: platinum blonde hair-Clairol No. 103- trim figure, and ample cleavage. Windsor admitted, “If I didn’t have nice breasts, Thea and I would never have got together.” Nevertheless, Spyer, highly sought after, wanted to play the field though Edie had been instantly smitten. In 1965 Windsor went to the Hamptons knowing her love interest would be there. When they met Edie asked her if her dance card was full to which Thea replied, “It is now.” Edie remembered, “We made love all afternoon and went dancing at night-and that was the beginning.” To explain why Thea often called her at work she invented a relationship with Spyer’s “brother Willy,” actually the name of her childhood doll. Their family dynamics were also problematic.  Spyer’s relatives in New York disapproved of their relationship, so the couple spent the first few Thanksgivings after they were engaged at Edie’s sister’s house in Philadelphia. That ended when her brother-in-law was not keen on spending time with his sister and her lesbian lover.

        The ladies loved to travel, and their first trip was to Suriname; Spyer chose the destination as  it was Dutch-speaking, and she wanted to impress Windsor by conversing with the locals. They traipsed all over Europe with half a dozen enormous coordinating suitcases. On a trip to St. Thomas, just after they had moved in together in a Greenwich Village home, Windsor said, “I bought all the stuff I thought you need for a nice Jewish home.” Unfortunately, that home could not include the children for whom Edie longed. Parenthood was not in the cards: Dr. Spyer was a psychologist working in a field that classified her sexual orientation a mental illness. Marriage was the impossible dream as well, but in 1967 Spyer knelt down and proposed. Instead of an engagement ring that would have raised questions about her hubby-to-be, Thea gave Edie a brooch, a circle of diamonds.

       In 1977, when Spyer was forty-five, she received a diagnosis of chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. The couple still indulged in their beloved pastime with Thea ditching her crutches on the dance floor and leading with her good leg. The dire disease was also powerless to end their wanderlust. In Windsor’s bedroom, she placed a photograph of Thea being helped up a hill in Jerusalem by female Israeli soldiers. In the documentary Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement, Sayer reported, “Here I am, quadriplegic, not much is moving. The only thing that’ll bring me to tears-the only thing-is dancing. When we’re at parties or anything, anybody asks Edie to dance, she doesn’t do it.” Despite the affliction, their sex life was never on the back-burner. Edie retired from IBM to serve as her lover’s caregiver and never approved when people regarded her as a lesbian Florence Nightingale. “I was never her nurse-I’m her lover! I was just doing things to make her comfortable-and that was with loving her and digging her. I don’t know if I’d glorify it.” 

      After their 40-year engagement and with the Grim Reaper beckoning, Edie and Thea-ages 77 and 75-legalized their union; Windsor no longer was content with the idea of merely ‘pulling his hair and run.’ The brides, along with six friends, flew to Toronto-an excruciating feat for a quadriplegic- where the ceremony was officiated by Canada’s first openly gay judge, Justice Harvey Brownstone. Less than two years later, Spyer passed away.

      To add to the sorrow of the then-octogenarian widow, the IRS levied a $363,000 federal tax on her late wife’s estate, something it would not have done if Thea had been Theo. Edie was almost 80, suffering from a broken heart, and within a few weeks, suffered a heart attack to add to the mix. When she recovered, she decided to take her country to court though she realized it was akin to fighting city hall. Approaching her ninth decade, Edie embarked on a judicial odyssey, fighting a battle she never expected to wage-and in the process became an accidental activist. A number of attorneys refused to take her case as they worried she was too old, and that she might die along the way. She eventually found a champion in Roberta Kaplan who took the suit pro bono with the provision Windsor was not to talk publicly about sex-a subject about which Edie was less than close-mouthed.

      Kaplan successfully argued the case in front of the Supreme Court, and on that 2013 red letter day, a photograph captured Windsor marching out of the Capitol, a woman in her 80s, wearing a bright pink scarf, smiling., The picture bespoke the proverbial 1,000 words: that after all the years of rejection from family members, employers, and the government, members of the LGBT community no longer had to hide.  Indeed, in case anyone was in doubt as to Windsor’s sexual orientation, she wore a t-shirt which proclaimed: Nobody knows I’m a lesbian.

      After the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in Windsor V the United States, the 84-year-old plaintiff was at Roberta’s apartment with a group of friends when she received a congratulatory call from President Obama. Windsor said of the historic moment, “If I had to survive Thea what a glorious way to do it.” While the others cried and yelled, Edie announced, “I want to go to Stonewall right now.” To celebrate Roberta and Edie took a victory lap around Manhattan in an SUV, their version of the Popemobile; every time they stopped fans swarmed the car, weeping tears of joy, and in return received a kiss from the matriarch of their movement.  She said, “If you have to outlive a great love, I can’t think of a better way to do it than being everyone’s hero.”

   Ms. Windsor’s activism continued after her victory, and during the summer of 2017, she maintained a pace that would have been impressive for someone half her age. She was a fixture at marches and events for homeless LGBT youth, lesbian rights, and violence against gays. The 84-year-old became the Rosa Parks for same sex marriage activists. She drove a convertible, albeit with disregard for stop signs, and made plans to go on a Caribbean cruise with Maya Angelo. The diminutive woman was the grand marshal of the New York City Pride Parade and a runner-up, alongside Pope Francis, for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.

    Ariel Levy wrote in The New Yorker that in 2015 she went to visit the Grande dame of gay rights in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Windsor enjoyed celebrity status in the community, and as they walked down Commercial Street past the rainbow flags and the stores selling leather harnesses and lobster t-shirts, strangers approached and embraced the tiny octogenarian to thank her for her bravery that paved the way for a more perfect union. Her friend was as glamorous as ever that summer, with her platinum bob and huge black sunglasses, effervescent even in the midst of a breakup. The problem with the relationship, she explained, was that the woman-thirty years her junior-simply could not keep up with her sexual needs. Windsor said, “I told her, Honey, I’m not demanding-I’m begging!” Levy said that around midnight she told Windsor that she should probably bike back to her room, so Edie could get some sleep. The response from the woman who always advised not to postpone joy, “Sleep! Are you kidding, cookie? I want to go dancing!” The comment would not have surprised anyone who knew Edie; after all, she was not your typical Jewish old lady.

       In 2016 Windsor took her third trip down the aisle when she wed Judith Kasen, then 51, no doubt someone who could keep up with her. Rather than rue the reversal in the law that came too late for Thea she stated, “The truth is, I never expected less from my country.”

         The white-haired heroine, not a stranger to swearing, partial to pearls, who favored running shoes-a fitting choice for a woman who never seemed to stop moving-passed away in 2017. And if Heaven is more forgiving than the land below, Thea will lead once more.